Calamity, umbrage, and social change came at us nonstop this year, and I found myself using art as a way to contend with it all. Art exhibitions are often an opportunity to get gloriously lost in visions and ideas, but many shows addressed our moment.
Aesthetics and other structures of knowing can mirror and bolster existing power dynamics. The Institute of Contemporary Art’s “Mark Dion: Misadventures of a 21st-Century Naturalist,” up through Dec. 31, takes on the issue squarely. The prolific and assiduous Dion has made a career of pulling back the curtain on museums. In particular, he dismantles romantic notions of exploration and collecting associated with natural history, revealing systems of understanding that worked to keep certain white men kings of the hill.
Museums are keen on institutional critiques such as Dion’s, but they are not swift in responding to the kind of frenetic cultural eruptions we’ve seen this year — it takes two to three years to plan an exhibition. Then again, some of those eruptions had been simmering for some time.
The Yale University Art Gallery’s compelling “Artists in Exile: Expressions of Loss and Hope” (through Dec. 31) seems fortuitously timed. The Syrian refugee crisis already had made viewers attuned to exile, but in 2017 questions about who belongs — and who does not — have struck at the heart of American identity. In the ICA’s “Nari Ward: Sun Splashed,” the Jamaican-born scavenger artist poignantly delved into citizenship, belonging, and race.
In another searing show, “Emancipating the Past: Kara Walker’s Tales of Slavery and Power,” at the University Museum of Contemporary Art, University of Massachusetts Amherst, the artist probed slavery’s ongoing damage with her incisive blend of outrage and humor. “Memory Unearthed: The Lodz Ghetto Photographs of Henryk Ross,” at the Museum of Fine Arts, was wrenching documentary evidence by a Jewish photographer of what happens when power runs amok.
But there’s a drop of tonic to today’s (and yesterday’s) social ills in “Rediscovering an American Community of Color: The Photographs of William Bullard” at the Worcester Art Museum through Feb. 25, with never-seen-before portraits of residents of a Worcester neighborhood, shot by an unknown photographer a century ago.
Shows such as these shed fresh light on this old, increasingly troubled world. Other exhibitions offered more than diversion: Art can restore in us the most human and tender elements of our psyches — those that go into hiding when we’re sitting watching the news in dumb shock or moral outrage.
The MFA’s Japanese department has had a spectacular autumn. “Takashi Murakami: Lineage of Eccentrics” marvelously weaves the contemporary pop phenomenon’s shiny, cute, and action-packed works with art historical scholarship and the MFA’s deep collection — and linked to the madcap woodcut show upstairs, “Showdown! Kuniyoshi vs. Kunisada.”
It’s been a terrific year for Modernist exhibitions. The MFA’s “Matisse in the Studio” was a nimble, sparkling exploration of the master by way of his favorite things. Then a flurry of terrific smaller shows. Two sumptuous Helen Frankenthaler exhibitions (paintings in one, woodcuts in the other) at the Clark Art Institute had an effect both edifying and freeing, like fine cognac. “Hans Hofmann: Works on Paper” at the Portland Museum of Art captured that artist’s many contradictions, and “Mark Rothko: Reflection,” at the MFA through July 1, is the place to go for sanctuary.
The biggest New England art news of the year was the opening of Mass MoCA’s capacious Building 6, which was like adding one whole new museum to the mix, anchored by the heady, luminous James Turrell installations in the basement. Other contemporary shows of note: “Screens: Virtual Material,” at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum through March 18, cannily puts in context a medium so ubiquitous we have no perspective on it; Joe Bradley’s self-titled show at the Rose Art Museum (through Jan. 28) charts the artist’s surrender to paint; and Dana Schutz’s paintings at the Institute of Contemporary Art were as generous as they were biting.
“Lines of Thought: Drawing From Michelangelo to Now From the British Museum,” a marvelous exhibition at the RISD Museum through Jan. 7, emphasizes drawing as a creative tool. Seeing it is like standing beside glassblowers as they work. You can feel the heat and fluidity of sketches by artists from Leonardo da Vinci to Bridget Riley: The germ of an idea, the prospect of failure, the fleshing into art.
Weeks after I praised the show, a friend who saw it said to me, “Yes, but what about non-European artists?”
My heart crumbled a little. He was right — “Lines of Thought” is canon, and right now canon is an ocean liner attempting to make a course correction. It would have been remarkable to see, say, a Native American ledger drawing in this exhibition.
“Botticelli and the Search for the Divine” at the MFA was first, sublime, then taut with social upheaval. It offered the painter in full bloom under the auspices of the Medicis, with his languid nudes, his sensual linearity, and his passion for classical mythology. Then the Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola cracked down on Florentine morals, and Botticelli’s paintings grew flatter, more crowded, and more severe. He gave up secular subjects altogether. Were his later paintings stronger? No, but they were tougher.
Society changes, and art changes with it. We may be in the dark about what’s next, but art, somehow, always holds up a lantern.Cate McQuaid can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.